A novel set on the eve of World War II, focusing on Dr. Eduard Bloch, an Austrian physician who treated Adolf Hitler as a young man and who had been the attending physician when Hitler’s mother was dying of breast cancer.
Neugeboren (Big Man, 2001, etc.) uses Bloch, an actual historical figure for whom Hitler had personally made arrangements to emigrate to the United States, to explore themes of racial purity, mysterious disappearance and psychological disturbance. Bloch’s life becomes entangled with that of Elisabeth Rofman, a medical illustrator who travels from Baltimore to New York City in search of her father, who has recently disappeared from his apartment in the Bronx. Elisabeth’s anxieties increase when she discovers that her mentally disturbed son Daniel has escaped from an institution in Baltimore. Complicating the action are the ministrations of Elisabeth’s former husband, a smooth and manipulative operator (pun intended—he’s a surgeon) who also wants to find Daniel, primarily to have him returned to the institution to undergo medical castration in an attempt to rein in his primal urges. Neugeboren mixes a third-person account of Elisabeth’s search for her husband and son (and antipathy for her ex-husband) with accounts from Bloch’s journal, in which he traces his growing romantic interest in Elisabeth and offers memories of the young Hitler and speculation on his rise to power. Bloch also dispassionately reviews his life and his status as an Edeljude, a “noble Jew,” who raises an interesting and ultimately unanswerable question: “In accepting favors granted to me by Adolf Hitler that were, to my knowledge, granted to no other Jew, have I been dishonorable?” While Bloch is too serene to be described as tormented by this question, it casts a shadow over his actions in 1940—both the year and the novel.
A compelling read on many levels, offering personal reflection, historical speculation and mystery.